Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2009:
#1: Avatar Is Almost Titanic

By David Mumpower

January 3, 2010

More of these plants should have been Na'vi eating.

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Timing is everything in life. Consider that had we started this year's list of the top stories of 2009 12 days earlier, Avatar would have finished in third place. That was where it was originally slotted when we finalized the order. At the time, Avatar had domestic box office of $125 million. As I have been chronicling in the 12 Days of Holiday Box Office, a situation can and will change rapidly at this point on the box office calendar. Given the cataclysmic domestic as well as global performances of Avatar through the Christmas-New Year's Day weekend period, there is simply no denying the point that it has bullied its way into being the biggest Film Industry Story of 2009.

The triumph of director James Cameron's previous work, Titanic, is easy to quantify. The fictional interpretation of the infamous historical shipwreck not only surpassed Star Wars to become the number one box office title of all time, it did so by 30%. Ignoring ticket price inflation adjustments, Star Wars earned $461 million, $138 million of it occurring during its January re-release in 1997. On its 86th day of release, Titanic overtook Star Wars to become the biggest film ever. 12 days later, it became the first title to earn $500 million in domestic release and eventually passed the $600 mark as well, finishing with $600.8 million. That's the North American side of the occasion. Internationally is where the title truly shined.

James Cameron has always been a huge draw overseas. Aliens earned almost $100 million internationally, making it one of the 35 best performers of all-time. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the third strongest overseas earner through 1992, trailing only Star Wars and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Even the relatively unheralded True Lies was at one point among the 20 most lucrative international box office earners. Including The Terminator and The Abyss' combined $95 million abroad, the director's works accrued roughly $725 million in worldwide revenue through 1996. For whatever reason, his works have proven to be arguably the most prosperous in the industry in terms of global appeal.


Still, the industry was knocked on its heels by how Titanic performed internationally. Its overseas take of $1.23 billion would be more than enough to make it the overall winner in terms of worldwide box office. It doesn't even need that pesky $600.8 million domestic total to beat the film that had been the second place finisher prior to Avatar, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which has worldwide sales of $1.13 billion. Titanic made a full hundred million more overseas than the final piece of the Peter Jackson trilogy made globally. Titanic has the largest domestic total, the largest international total and the largest worldwide total...and all by a LOT.

As you are fully aware, James Cameron took a vacation after Titanic made him a very, very rich man. Excluding nature flick Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss, an enjoyable documentary also about the Titanic, he did not direct a film for a dozen years. When Avatar was announced as a project, the auteur stated that he had been waiting for technology to catch up to his vision of what the production would need. To many, this sounded like another brash act from an egotistical man. Independent of how anyone feels about the man himself, however, there is no disputing the fact that he has always backed up his braggadocio with quality work. Cameron has somehow managed to navigate the boundaries between art and commercialism, making critically hailed features that also earn a ton of money. Avatar, the follow-up to Titanic, was the first one he believed could not be created using current movie tools.

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